With home offices based in Los Angeles, Crystal has long been a favorite of the well-heeled West Coast crowd (though actually a subsidiary of Tokyo-based NYK or Nippon Yusen Kaisha). Crystal Cruises is the luxury cruise line of choice for voyagers deep-pocketed enough to afford a luxury cruise, but gregarious and lively enough to crave a larger ship (by luxury standards) and lots of fellow passengers and a broad range of activities and facilities.
The company's 68,000-ton newest state-of-the-art luxury ship, Crystal Serenity, carries a mere 1080 passengers, boasting one of the highest space-to-passenger ratios in the cruise world. Intent on being even more popular than its predecessors Symphony and Harmony ( Harmony is no longer in service, leaving the fleet in November, 2005 to sail for parent company NYK as the Asuka II), Serenity is a 14-deck ship has three alternative restaurants among seven dining venues, two paddle tennis courts, a completely new learning center, and an enlarged computer center. Its boardroom has its own wine cellar and a special lounge for repeat passengers.
Crystal definitely has a feel of its own among the luxury vessels, and some people find it intoxicatingly addictive. The service is impeccable, and if anything it can tend to be almost too personalized for private types, but if you love being doted upon then Crystal has the highest guest-to-staff ratios at sea. There's a general atmosphere of what might be called California-ness aboard; everyone tends to be friendly, socially aware, politically correct and committed to personal growth.
Crystal focuses on image conscious, worldly passengers interested in self-knowledge and self-improvement. Even on the balmiest afternoon, far fewer of your fellow passengers are likely to be sunning themselves by the pool than inside listening attentively to a guest expert lecture about climate change, personal finance or jewelry.
Crystal is unique among luxury ships as the ships are larger than Silversea or Seabourn, but closer in size to Regent. Crystal, however, just upgraded its onboard policy to be more in line with other luxury cruise lines policies when it comes to what's included in the cruise fare. You no longer pay extra for beverages or gratuities - they are now all included in the cruise fare.
The service on Crystal is hard to beat with an all European staff, even for room stewards and waiters, they offer the crewmembers an impressive benefits package too assure a low turnover rate. The crew to guest ratio better than one to two, which is very impressive when you consider Royal Caribbean's ratio is more like four passengers to every crewmember.
The line innovated the first computer training program at sea as far back as 1999 (copied by many other cruise lines eventually). They called it "Computer University@Sea" and despite the fact the name made it appear web oriented, Internet access was actually a small component of what Crystal was doing with the program. This has now evolved into the "Creative Learning Institute" which features a dazzling array of onboard activities to stimulate your mind. Onboard lessons in playing piano, speaking foreign languages,acting, fashion design and a host of other possible topics await you onboard.
That said, bingo and the casino are still both popular. A former affiliation with Caesar's Casino in Las vegas to provide the onboard gaming has been replaced with inhouse management, but you will find a much more lavish casino on Crystal than you will on most cruise luxury cruise ships. Yes, it's smaller than Carnival, but what it lacks in quantity it makes up for in quality. You can charge up to $300/day to your shipboard account for gaming. If you want a higher credit limit you can apply by downloading the form online.
Crystal's floor shows are always rated as tops in the luxury sector. That isn't saying much since the luxury lines generally do not focus on production shows, but Crystals are the exception. They can't compete with Carnival's huge stage, effects and assemblage of talent, but the shows are clever.
Because Crystal's passengers generally prefer to stay aboard and attend lectures and computer classes, Crystal seems to call in relatively fewer ports per cruise than many other cruise lines. For example, the 10-day May 31, 2007 Mediterranean cruise on Symphony, only stops at four ports (one for 2 days), while a comparable luxury line known for port-intensity on a 10-day, May 27, 2007 Mediterranean cruise stops at nine (including two in one day).
But when Crystal does make a stop, they make a splash. The line is now known for some of the most outrageous shore excursions available anywhere. Take a brand new factory Porsche for a test drive at the assembly plant in Liepzig, Germany. Not fast enough for you? How about flying a Russian MIG fighter jet? In addition, they offer "private adventures" for people who want something special all to themselves. These are customized tour experiences which you dream up yourself. You just give Crystal the details and they make the arrangements for you.
Obviously, being aboard a Crystal ship is being in the lap of luxury, and it is for people who appreciate that more than the world travel. The company has introduced a whole raft of passenger-pleasing new policies in recent years, none more popular than its Reserve Wine List of 20 rare and much-sought-after vintages. Special dinners were conceived around particular wines and champagnes. Crystal may have introduced alternative, "boutique" restaurants, but assigned dining at one of two seatings remains the rule in the main restaurant.
Mostly widely-traveled, well-heeled sixty-somethings from California who almost invariably "look great for their age" whatever that age may be. The line also attracts a fair number of relatively younger (40s-50s) singles attracted by the line's single supplement program, usually more women than men single travelers, so the line often has gentlemen hosts aboard.
Smoking will no longer be allowed in Starlite Club (aboard Crystal Symphony) and on verandahs of all staterooms and Suites aboard both Crystal Symphony and Crystal Serenity. Please be advised that select public areas, especially bars and lounges, will still permit smoking in certain areas.Shore Excursions
Crystal's attractively priced and well-organized shore excursions can be reserved in advance; just download the form from www.crystalcruises.com and fax or mail it in. Onboard, a Land Program Specialist can work up a personalized itinerary for those who prefer to set off on their own. Some of the excursions are extraordinary such as a hot air balloon ride over Ireland. In keeping with the California media-based clientele, there is a tour of Rome showcasing the key symbols and landmarks in Dan Brown's best-selling book Angels & Demons.Kid's Excursions
As far as youngsters are concerned, Crystal is the most welcoming of the high-end lines. Each ship has a dedicated playroom, and a Junior Activities counselor is present on any cruise with ten or more children aboard. There are Junior Activities counselors aboard any Crystal cruise where 10 or more children are booked. Children's play rooms are well equipped and the "Surf Runner," children's newsletter details scheduled activities.Past Passenger Programs
Crystal's passengers are the most loyal in the industry, and the line makes its appreciation apparent. Crystal Society members receive special discounts on select cruises, including reservations made during a cruise, and enjoy special onboard parties and photo sessions with the Captain. They're sent the Society's newsletter, and granted priority check-in. Once aboard, they enjoy in-cabin wine and flowers. The line also offers a Milestone-level rewards and recognition program.
The Crystal Society offers $100 shipboard credit for each new-to-Crystal guest you bring with you (maximum $400 per year), while they will receive $100 shipboard credit for themselves. Benefits go up as you accumulate more cruises, including higher shipboard credits and free upgrades with every 10 additional cruises. Take 100 cruises and you will get a free cruise in the Crystal Penthouse. of course, by them you will have spent about $1,000,000 with the cruise line, so you deserve it!Theme Cruises
Crystal specializes in integrating destinations and shore excursions into theme-based adventures. About half of Crystal's sailings are themed, including 16 Wine & Food Festival cruises. There are also occasional music-theme cruises with big bands and jazz singers, and such cruises usually involves going to special events on shore in keeping with the theme of the cruise. On other cruises, you can learn to play the stock market more shrewdly, study a language, or gain an increased appreciation for various sorts of art. More themed cruises include mind and body cruises, Jazz cruises, film amd theater festivals and arts and antiques cruises.Tipping
Unlike most luxury cruise lines, Crystal also does not include Gratuities in its cruise fare. Suggested guidelines for stateroom and dining service gratuities are as follows: stewardess, $5 per guest, per day (single travelers, $6 per day); senior waiter, $5 per guest, per day; waiter, $3 per guest, per day; butler (Penthouse Decks), $4 per guest, per day.
The servers in specialty restaurants Prego, Jade Garden, Silk Road and The Sushi Bar all expect $7.00 per person per dinner.
All bar drinks and wines automatically get a 15 percent gratuity added. A similar gratuity is recommended for Salon and Spa services. Tip the maitre d', headwaiter, assistant stewardess and night Room Service at your discretion.
I have cruised on Crystal Symphony about 6 times. It is my favorite ship and I always have a wonderful time. The food is excellent, the service beyond excellent, and my fellow cruisers are almost all well mannered and friendly. It is; however, a real stretch for my budget.
It was announced that if you cruise on your birthday in 2010 you can take another cruise for 25% off, (50% for those in double cabins) as long as you take it before your next birthday. I signed up for the Panama Canal cruise that included my birthday. I was told that I could not reserve the discount cruise until I had actually taken the birthday cruise. I; therefore, signed up for the next cruise while on the ship for the birthday cruise. I signed up for the lowest price cabin as usual. Soon after the cruise I was notified that there were no cabins in that price category, or the next one up, for the cruise next November, 10 months away, The least expensive cabin available for my discount cruise was well over $5000. I feel that the line pulled a"bait and switch" type of maneuver. I am angry enough that I will probably not cruise on Crystal for quite a long time. Although it is my favorite, there are other ships that are very nice. I have taken about 50 cruises and never failed to have a good time, although some ships and some cruises are better than others. A few have even been quite bad.
The things that make Crystal stand out are subtle, but add up to make a very enjoyable experience. To name a few:
1. The service is always cheerful, and the crew seems to really want to be sure you have a good time. There is no eye-rolling or comment if you ask the ice cream attendant to fix your cone a certain way or want something a bit different than usual. Someone is immediately there to take your tray to the table as soon as you step away from the serving line in the casual restaurant.
2. The price is really close to all inclusive; very few extra charges. The mini-bar items in your cabin are there for you to enjoy, and it is restocked daily. Alcohol costs extra. The ship features Coke products. I do not like coke so my mini-bar is stocked with Pepsi at no extra charge. There is no extra charge for any classes except private lessons. The needlepoint kits and instruction are included. There is no extra charge for the ultra deluxe alternate restaurants except $7.00 recommended tip for service.
3. A person from the ship goes on every shore excursion, and is in touch with people on the ship if there is any problem.
4. The guest lecturers have almost always been knowledgeable and interesting. There are a variety of topics on each cruise. Piano lessons, bridge lessons, and a language are offered at no extra charge.
5. An extremely well stocked library with CDs and DVDs available at no extra charge and a well informed librarian to help you find something you will like.
6. If you let the head waiter know what you would like to try at dinner it will be prepared for you. I have always wondered what lobster thermador is when it is mentioned in a novel. On this cruise I had the kitchen prepare it for me (and several of my tablemates who also wanted to try it). It was delicious and there was no extra charge. Several other special dishes were served to the table because someone asked for them.
7. The prizes at trivia are often something you would really like to keep as a souvenir; very few of the keychain type. On this cruise I won a journal to use as a cruise diary and a baseball cap with the Crystal logo.
8. The casino allows double and triple odds at the craps table which gives the player a fighting chance to come out ahead. Many ships allow only single odds if they even have a craps table.
Unfortunately, this wonderful service does come at a higher than most cost. There are a few items that can drive your onboard costs high too. Computer time, alcohol, spa treatments, onboard shops, and shore excursions are very expensive. The medical center was also very expensive for a simple problem. I had a great time without spending much in these areas excep two shore excursions and a drink on the last day.
Background -- Panama Birthday Surprise Nearly 2 years ago at a family wedding in Israel my Mum suddenly said that she'd been thinking of a way to celebrate her 75th birthday which would be coming up soonish, and what did we think about it, "we" being myself and my two sisters and our respective spouses. Well, we obviously said "yeh, great, wow, brilliant" etc etc, and then my Mum said what did we think of New York? (She'd been on the QE2 a number of times with my late father and had very fond memories of transatlantics.) Well, we obviously said "yeh, great, wow, brilliant" etc etc.
That was the easy bit, agreeing to go!! As all you experienced cruisers well know, deciding exactly how, where, when, how much, where from, what size, which line, which ship, traditional, casual, formal, anytime dining, rock climbing wall, 15 alternative restaurants etc etc is the hardest part -- especially with a group of 7.
My Mum decided she'd always wanted to traverse the Panama Canal, so itinerary was settled upon, which "only" left the rest of the questions outlined above. Now, as I and Mrs nadgeonly eat kosher food I started to look into cruise lines that could provide this. Nearly all lines can provide airline-type sealed kosher meals which can be reheated, but who wants to eat airline meals on a cruise?? I came across an article about Crystal's kosher-style dining, and it took off from there. I made some enquiries with the On-board Guest Services at Crystal, and that was that!
(I'll touch on the food later on, but I won't go into huge detail about what is and isn't kosher. For those wishing to know more about kosher food, and exactly what Crystal can do, I'd be only too happy to either open another thread, or e-mail. Just ask.)
Travel to New York Since New York was on the wish list from the start, and it's sort of "on the way" to Costa Rica from Israel, we decided to take advantage of the fact by doing a 3 night pre pre-cruise in Manhattan. Now, so that Mum wouldn't have to travel all the way to NY by herself (she lives in Manchester, England whilst the 6 of us live in Israel) we decided that we'd fly to NY via London, and pick her up in Heathrow in the departure lounge. So, after a very pleasant 5 hour flight on BA to London we have to transfer to the next flight. In Heathrow this entails a further (rather pointless) security check "x-ray" all hand luggage, and coats, and shoes, and belts, and phones, and wallets, then through the metal detector. Bear in mind that we have walked straight off a plane, our checked in luggage will only be collected in NY if we're lucky enough to win the BA lottery and not have to report missing bags, and gone nowhere other than walk straight to the security point. Anyway, then the fun starts.
After passing our bags and belongings through the x-ray machine we were delayed in walking through the metal detector whilst the female security officer searched/checked an old lady's wheelchair which had set off an alarm when she went through in front of us. So what, I hear you ask. Well, in the absence of another female security officer we all had to wait. Eventually, we went through ourselves and collected our belongings. Well, I did, but Mrs nadge's small black leather handbag with ALL of her travel documents in it (passport, tickets etc) and money and cards, had gone. In its place was a similar bag, but not hers. We hoped that someone had made a genuine mistake. Considering the severity of the situation with our next flight due to take off in a couple of hours I was surprised at how calm Mrs nadge was. With a fair bit of persuasion we finally managed to convince the security people to look in the other black bag for some information as to its owner, and although there were no official documents in it there were some prescription tablets in a box with a lady's name on written in Hebrew! Someone had obviously just come off the same plane as us. Luckily, we can read Hebrew. The name was fed in to the system by the friendly BA staff and it turned out to be that very same lady in the wheelchair. What had obviously happened was that the attendant had been told to take a black leather bag, which he/she did, but didn't ask the lady if it was actually hers.
This wheelchair lady was nowhere to be seen and an APB was put out for her. After receiving conflicting information that her connecting flight didn't leave for another 4 hours, correct info was passed on that not only was she scheduled for a plane in the next hour she was already on it. Mrs nadge started to get a tad worried. By this time the police had appeared, very interested in the possible theft of a British passport, not to mention that there was an Israeli passport as well. The police literally ran off to the other plane, boarded the aircraft and retrieved the bag which had already been put in the overhead locker and when the old lady saw it she said "but that's not my bag".
Crisis over, we managed to fit in 20 minutes of retail therapy before our next flight. Joking apart, if you ever have a wheelchair or know someone who does, ALWAYS check that the bags the attendant retrieves for you are really yours.
We arrived in JFK on time, all our bags had amazingly arrived as well and in one piece, and immigration couldn't have been easier. I had been a bit concerned about this because I've heard many stories about extremely unfriendly (even antagonistic) US immigration officials. I'd arranged for my Mum to have a wheelchair to save her all the walking and hand-luggage schlepping, so we all just trooped behind her straight to the front of the immigration queue. Once through we went to a desk in the arrivals hall where the assistant phoned through to Supershuttle for us through whom I'd booked transfers.
Thanks again to those who answered my thread about transfer advice in New York. As there were 7 of us with tons of luggage (14 very large bags, 7 large hand-luggage wheelie thingies and another 7 small bags) normal taxis would have been very expensive, and Supershuttle was recommended. It cost $133 including the tip. The woman at the desk said that the van would arrive in 20 mins. A minute and a half later as we were settling down to wait a guy came in and called our name to say our van was here. Excellent service. He loaded everything in to the van with no fuss, and was very courteous.
New York Hotel We were finally off to Manhattan. Neither I nor Mrs nadge had been to America before so we were very excited about the whole thing. There wasn't very much traffic so it only took about 25 mins to get to our hotel, Radio City Apartments on W 42nd St. I'd done quite a bit of research on Tripadvisor about NY hotels and I'd been very surprised at the price of a room. I mean, I know NY is expensive, but so is London, but I never realized how expensive hotels are in NY. Anyway this hotel is in a great location a block and a half from Times Square, right next to the theatre district. I'd booked well in advance and got a very good rate for one 1 bedroom apartment (1 bedroom with 2 double beds, and a sitting room with sofa bed, plus kitchenette with stove, fridge microwave " all spotless) and one 2 bedroom apartment (1 bedroom with 2 double beds, 1 bedroom with twin beds, and a larger sitting room with sofa bed, plus larger kitchenette.) As before, if anyone wants any more information then please ask.
New York was definitely an experience. Up till then my New York had been the movies plus anything else I might have heard. There is definitely a hustle and bustle about the city; everyone seems to be walking around with great purpose. The buildings are really really tall, and the taxis really are yellow. I also saw a real life yellow old-fashioned looking school bus, just like in the movies. We only had two full days and my Mum can't walk either fast or far, but we managed a number of really touristy things. We went on a hop-on hop-off guided tour bus and we visited Ground Zero. We caught the ferry to the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island, but unfortunately it was quite late so we had to choose only one island to get off at. We chose Ellis Island but because of the late hour didn't really spend enough time there. We'd definitely go again. We walked around Times Square and 5th Avenue, and wandered around Macy's. Due to lack of time we had to pick between the Empire State Building and the Top of the Rock. The Rock won and we weren't disappointed. The whole Rockefeller Centre is amazing, and the Rock exhibition is very good. The views from the top go without saying although it was a bit misty. We saw the famous skating rink that's always used as the closing scene in the movies. The Empire State will have to wait till next time. We discovered a breakfast place where the locals go, in the back of this jewelry shop in the diamond district. We also found time for a bit of shopping " my new camera came in very useful on the cruise. Oh yes, we managed to figure out the subway system and what a metrocard is, and apart from traffic police directing the traffic at an intersection I don't think I saw a single cop anywhere.
Overall, it was quite strange being on a mini holiday in the middle of a big holiday. I'd love to go again. Contrary to popular belief, everyone we spoke to was really friendly and made our stay very pleasant. My main impression of New York is standing in the street wondering whether there are more tall buildings in Manhattan or more Starbucks. I mean, about every 100 yards there's a Starbucks. What is it with Americans and coffee? Can't anyone go for more than 2 minutes without access to a cup of coffee?
A great place.
Travel to Costa Rica We'd originally planned to go on this same cruise in November 2007 disembarking in Costa Rica. That would have meant an even longer journey home as it's another 5-1/2 hour flight. Taking the advice of many CC members I'd arranged to arrive in Costa Rica the night before embarkation, just in case. We again Supershuttled from Manhattan to the airport, Newark this time, definitely even more of a bargain this time as the price was the same $133 including tip. No problems with the journey on Continental, arriving about 9:40pm. Costa Rica airport is very quiet and organised, immigration very quick with about 8 lines open at once to process everyone. Once outside however it's pandemonium. Lots of people scurrying around and shouting. I hadn't been worried about being met because I'd ordered two taxis through the hotel ($20 each) we were staying at (making sure that there'd be enough room) but with all the commotion outside I was glad when we saw a little fellow jumping up and down and waving a sheet of paper with my name on.
In the end one van sufficed, with lots of luggage on the roof rack. We drove off into the night and after about 5 minutes turned off the main highway onto dark, twisting, narrow, bumpy roads. We hadn't a clue where we were but the driver seemed to know what he was doing, and after about 25 minutes we arrived at the Hotel Casa Alegre in Santa Ana which is a small suburb about 10 minutes from San Jose. It's a hacienda type hotel with about 7 rooms ranged around a central swimming pool, and a very cosy lounge with a super-comfy couch. It's very reasonable at about $300 for 4 very nice double rooms including breakfast.
Now, I don't know about you, but I wouldn't expect ex-pat Brits living in Israel to know anybody in Costa Rica! Well, at about 12 midnight there's non-stop ringing at the gate of the hotel, and it's our cousin come to visit us. He'd just moved to Costa Rica for work about a month and a half previously from England, and his wife and kids had just come out 2 weeks ago. If we'd have known when we made the arrangements we'd have arranged for a longer stay in Costa Rica. It was surreal meeting him there like that. We chatted till about 2 in the morning. They all joined us for breakfast the next day before we left for the ship so that was a really nice way to start off embarkation day. For them it was quite sad because they don't know when they'll see anyone from the family next.
Like a child who has been waiting all year round for his birthday to come round again, I've been involved in this trip "planning, organising, logistics," but mostly waiting impatiently for over a year and a half. Cruise sites have kept me going during that time, with everyone's advice and experience, and cruising vicariously with you all. My turn had finally arrived. Has anyone ever been Crystallised before sailing on Crystal? I expect I'm the first!
Our taxi came back for us bang on the dot at 9:30 and by 10:00 we were all packed up and ready to go, our van bursting at the seams with the never-ending mound of luggage that we apparently need for 2 and a half weeks of travel. The trip is very scenic and uses the Pan American Highway which officially stretches all the way from Monterrey all the way down to Buenos Aries. The road is very busy, full of cars and buses and an even larger quantity of huge trucks that haul Costa Rica's goods all over a country with no railroad. This means that we never make it over 80 kph the whole way with an average of about 60kph. (This is torture for someone who fancies himself as the new Nigel Mansell.) After what seems like an age we eventually see a sign pointing the way to Caldera. We're nearly there!
Check-In Suddenly we get our first glimpse of the ocean, and then the Symphony comes into view sitting proudly in port. Seeing the ship for the first time as we rounded a bend in the road was amazing. My camera is now working overtime of course. It was like when we were kids driving to Blackpool and the first to see the Tower would get sixpence (you Brits out there will understand). So much excitement after so much anticipation.
10 minutes later we're out of the van being handed yet more immigration forms to fill in by grumpy Costa Rican officials, who are flanked by helpful, smiling Crystal employees. Check in consisted of presenting your passport to another grumpy immigration man for stamping, on one side of a low hangar type building, whilst set up on the other side were stands with computers all emblazoned with the Crystal logo, staffed by smiling crew in sparkling white uniforms. Formalities took just 5 minutes, credit card details were passed over, passports were given in (quite a strange feeling but I had read that this is what happens), pictures taken for the room key, signatures signed and room key-card received, and the seven of us are having our picture taken for posterity in front of the Crystal Symphony posters.
From reading these boards for so long I was expecting the warm and genuine welcome we received, help with our bags, would we like to check in hand luggage whilst luncheon is served? But to be truthful, I was also wary of expecting too much. Perhaps everyone was exaggerating as to the completeness of the Crystal experience? Thankfully no. More than once over the cruise one of our little group would suddenly murmur "how did he remember that?" when a crew member would suddenly appear with a favourite treat.
We headed off to the dining room for lunch, with champagne of course. Just after we'd been seated a young lady comes up and asks which one of us is Nigel, so yours truly duly owns up. It turns out to be EitherOar who very graciously introduced herself and welcomed us on board. We got together later on in the cruise but I really appreciated that welcome. Thank you. Everyone else in our party was looking on in curious admiration -- only 5 minutes on board and already being greeted!!
Anyway, this conveniently brings me on to a subject very dear to my heart -- food.
Kosher Food and Crystal N.B. I won't go into the ins and outs and definitions of kosher food here, but if anyone is interested feel free to reply or e-mail me and I'll go into it with pleasure.
A long while back, when researching this whole trip, I sent off a whole load of questions about cruises with kosher food. This is how I found out about Crystal's kosher-style dining. After a series of clarification e-mails with On Board Guest Services I was satisfied that this met with our requirements. I assumed that this definition of kosher-style was standard. When we arrived however, the ship had not been informed of the things we were expecting, but I am happy to report that after outlining our requirements they did their utmost to fulfill them. I would suggest to anyone wanting this option to be in touch with your TA to make sure that your requirements have been transmitted to the ship.
We had been expecting some sort of kosher menu -- obviously much more limited than the normal one, but we just basically chose something suitable off the regular menu and had it done kosher. To make things easier we were shown the next day's menus during dinner and we made our choices then. That way the chef knew what was expected and what needed to be taken out of the freezer. Once things had been clarified with our head waiter Miguel and senior waiter Alan took great care of us. We could only have kosher food in the main dining room, which is a shame because the other venues looked wonderful too, especially the breakfast buffet up on the Lido deck. My sisters said that Jade Garden was very good, but Prego was probably about the best meal they'd ever had.
The food itself was amazing. The presentation was wonderful with special care taken over even the most insignificant dish like a simple salad or some fruit. You don't just get some smoked salmon on a plate, you get a work of art that you don't like to spoil by eating it. I didn't realize that breakfast could also be a command performance. The choice was huge and the eggs benedict with smoked salmon wonderful. My mum spoiled herself with hot porridge and brown sugar and cream whilst Mrs nadge made large inroads into the fresh croissants every day. Lunch and dinner weren't too bad either. The meat was to die for and done to perfection -- huge rib-eye steaks, beefburgers, lamb chops, enormous racks of lamb and a wonderfully thick juicy tender veal chop. I'm starting to salivate again!! They even made us chopped liver on Friday night. We were a bit limited in deserts because we cannot eat dairy dishes after meat, but the non-dairy sherbets were delicious and the hot cherries and bananas that our head waiter made for us were superb.
The Ship The ship is absolutely spotless. There is always someone cleaning or painting or polishing or varnishing. One can tell that the ship isn't new. There are many signs of age, but it doesn't detract an iota from how beautiful the ship looks. I was most impressed with the public toilets. I was also very impressed with all the arrangements -- a welcome envelope, TA credits in a gift envelope and an appointment with the bar manager to discuss a cocktail party I wanted to organise. Very professional.
Stewardess: We did have some problems with our stewardess. She was brand new. Embarkation day was our first day on a Crystal ship, and our stewardess had been on board exactly 3 days longer. She did not have much of a clue. She was very willing and pleasant, but it is not a good idea to put a new stewardess with new cruisers. We don't know what to ask for and she doesn't know what to suggest or the right questions to ask us. It's all so new that she kept forgetting things even though we would leave notes for her. Crystal definitely needs to make sure that new staff in this department receive proper training and proper real-time instruction.
We were in cabin 7046 and I can recommend it. There is a slightly limited view from the beam of a lifeboat crane but it is negligible. Plenty of room to put everything, and even our hugest suitcase managed to fit under the bed as well. The bathroom is big enough with instant hot water and good water pressure, and the twin bowls look very nice and didn't really splash. Never having experienced the loveseat we didn't miss it, and we just left the chair by the dressing table as it was. Mrs nadge just sat on the bed to watch telly. The linen laid out on the floor at turn-down service is a nice touch.
Activities Plenty to do on board. In fact, there's so much to do it sometimes seems like you're going to need another holiday when you get home just to get some rest. Up for breakfast in the dining room, a leisurely stroll to collect my book, get to Spanish class for 10:15, go to a lecture, make sure to get to the dining room for 12:00 for lunch so as to finish in time for the trivia quiz at 1.00pm. Need to relax after the quiz with a book and a coffee. Afternoon tea at 3.30pm for an hour, then a stroll along the deck to the ice cream bar to sample the delights. The coffee ice-cream is out of this world (and the butter pecan isn't bad either) especially with the assorted nuts. 2nd helping of coffee ice-cream and assorted nuts. Work off the 3rd helping of coffee ice-cream with assorted nuts and butterscotch sauce with a game of paddle tennis. Mrs nadge is by the pool most days relaxing and reading, or taking time to do some needlepoint. Early evening is time for some ice-cream, and then a well-earned rest before getting ready for one of the cocktail parties that we were invited to, or cocktails in our cabin, or cheese and wine in the art room. Down to late seating dinner -- the food is wonderful, the service top notch. On to the show, or one of the headline entertainers, finishing up either at karaoke or in the Avenue Saloon listening to Jeff Deutsch.
Entertainment During the cruise we played the "what job would I like to have on this ship?" game. Something not too demanding that enables you to cruise for a salary!! Well, if I could sing I'd like to be part of the acapella group The Castaways. They were brilliant, but over an 11 night cruise they performed for a maximum of 2 hours (1 hour for each sitting) -- hardly a strenuous position. Admittedly, they did take charge of the trivia quiz, and they ran the karaoke (3 times). It's just a shame that we couldn't enjoy them more.
The shows were very, very good, but repetitive. It's basically more of the same. Very professional, amazing costumes, excellent singing and dancing, but we all found ourselves nodding off at various stages of the performances. (Maybe the effect of too much booze, I hear you asking!!) My favourite was The Envelope Please which I thought was very well done, whilst the Cole Porter effort was boring -- probably because I didn't know the numbers. Cole, however, was my mum's favourite.
The headline entertainers were good. There was a Russian lady pianist who now lives in America, and a violinist who were both okay but they're not my cup of tea. The singer Brenda Cochrane was excellent but she was only on for about 30 minutes, and I was very pleasantly surprised by the comedian Jimmy Travis. He's apparently very famous in America though I'd never heard of him. I thought he might be too American for me but I enjoyed his humour very much. The last night illusionist wasn't too bad, but the lady who was "volunteered" to help him in his first trick stole the show with her total apathy.
Service Apart from our stewardess, about whom Crystal should take the blame, exemplary.
Ports and Shore Excursions Apart from traversing the Panama Canal we had four port days consisting of Aruba, Antigua, St. Maarten and St. Thomas, none of which we had visited before. We didn't particularly fancy any of the excursions which were bus sightseeing tours, if only for the reason that I hate travelling in buses and tend to get travel sick. I also feel that some of the tours are very expensive and can very often be found privately much cheaper.
This again brings up the eternal question of ship tours verses private tours. For example, we'd thought about getting the Crystal transfer on embarkation day which included sightseeing, from San Jose to Caldera, which cost $88 a person. Our private taxi (transfer only) for seven of us with ALL of our luggage (bearing in mind that we'd had 2-1/2 shopping days in New York before the cruise!) cost $110. Even adding on maybe another $100 if we'd done some sightseeing, there's still no comparison. On the other hand, you know that the ship's tours are reputable and they do what it says on the packet, and perhaps most importantly the ship will wait for you should anything untoward occur.
So we looked at the tours, dismissed any plain sightseeing ones, and chose to take part in two activities that we wouldn't normally do. In Aruba we went kayaking and snorkeling (quite expensive at $75 each), and in St. Maarten we chose the beginners scuba diving lesson/dive (fairly reasonable at $66 each). The kayaking was actually very good, with a personable guide/instructor which can make all the difference to any tour. We kayaked along the coast for about half an hour to a little beach where we had a little rest and a drink, then donned some snorkel equipment and life-jackets and swam out to see the coral. The last time I snorkeled was over 25 years ago in Sharm el-Sheikh and Nuweiba and I was looking forward to trying it again. The sea was a bit choppy which made progress difficult and made me feel a bit seasick. I'd been expecting it on the ship and happily I'd been fine, but I wasn't expecting to feel sick whilst snorkeling. I managed to survive, and what was even more surprising was that we didn't capsize our double kayak, especially on the way back when the sea got rough again. We were very proud of ourselves.
Scuba diving in St. Maarten was very nerve-racking. As first timers it's hard to get your head around the fact that you can breathe underwater. You have to make yourself relax. The instructors were excellent and I can heartily recommend this tour for the way it was run and led. After passing our "3 Skills Test" we actually dived to down to around 30 feet which was about three times deeper than I had originally envisaged. I don't think I'll particularly go diving again but it certainly is a great way to get an introduction to it.
After our kayaking in Aruba we became quick-change artists back on board, skipped lunch, and out again exploring within 15 minutes. Our kayak guide (originally from Brazil) had told us that the Portuguese parts of the local Papiamento language were brought to Aruba from Brazil when the Jewish community there was expelled (1694) after Portugal had re-conquered Brazil from Holland. He said that the Jewish community in Aruba is now assimilated but that there is still a Jewish cemetery on the island, so we of course were determined to find it. The town was pretty empty as it was the day after carnival week so everyone was "sleeping it off", but we finally managed to make ourselves understood and we were given directions. The cemeteries are all one after the other, a great big Catholic one, a small Protestant one, and a little Jewish one. It was very interesting to see that the cemetery is still being utilized and kept in very good condition.
Disembarking in Antigua we could hardly fail to notice the 3 other huge cruise ships in port with us. Only about 10,000 people unloading on to the island that morning. We hadn't booked a ship tour that day, so just took an official taxi tour from the end of the pier. My mum was with us that day whilst my sisters + spouses did their own thing. She can't walk very far so a taxi seemed like a good idea at the time. In fact it was a brilliant idea and for only $25 each we went on a 3-1/2 hour tour of the island in a nice new air-conditioned van, stopping off at the local spots, with time at various look-out points and also the famous Nelson Dockyard. Well worth it. This is in comparison with the official tour which did exactly the same thing (we saw the Crystal bus at points along the way) which cost $53 a person (see earlier discussion). We left the taxi in downtown St. Johns on main street, about 15-20 minutes walk from the ship. We ambled back doing bits of shopping on the way, so in the end we spent about two hours walking around. In case you're wondering, when it comes to shopping my mum has great stamina!
In St. Maarten we had our scuba diving in the afternoon so we went exploring in the morning by ourselves. We walked into town about 15 minutes away to Philipsburg, then caught a local bus to the French side to see what Marigot had to offer. Driving along the bumpy road all the signs were in English, but as soon we reached the French side the road was a lot better kept and the signs were in French. Shops don't really open till 10:00 am so we walked around, went to the sea front and then made our way to the open air market. Lots of stalls. Yes, of course we bought some bits and pieces. We're first time tourists in the Caribbean.
Finally we arrived at St. Thomas. To tell you the truth, this was the third port day in a row and it's exhausting. We would have preferred to have these days staggered. I don't know how people manage the port-intensive itineraries with hardly any sea days. As you all know St. Thomas is part of the United States so we had to go through the US immigration process. This was made very easy for us by Crystal as the immigration officials came on board to process us there, with separate rooms for US and non-US citizens. Two huge advantages were that firstly the whole process took about 45 seconds instead of the "hours" at a port or an airport, and it secondly it meant that we didn't have to do it in Miami which was the next stop for disembarkation.
Again we explored on foot, walking about 15-20 minutes into town and seeing what was on offer. We had no specific plan other than to wander around and go and find the synagogue which is the second oldest continuously functioning synagogue in the western hemisphere, dating back to 1796. We duly found the synagogue which lives on Synagogue Hill, and spent some time in the little museum reading through the history of the place. We found Britannia House where the old British Consuls lived, with a very friendly curator who gave us background information. Afterwards we went shop crawling in what cruise director Scott Peterson called Shopper's Disneyland, but we were disappointed. They were all basically the same, over-priced jewellery and over-priced souvenirs. Back at the port there are seven "shop buildings". Each "building" is really a street of shops but the same outlets are in each street so really there's hardly any choice at all. Even the single malt whisky that I looked at wasn't particularly cheap and there was a very poor selection. A much better drinks (liquor) shop is to be found on the pier in Antigua. All in all a pretty place but not one that I'd rush back to.
Disembarkation This was handled with Crystal's usual efficiency. Everyone received their colour-coded luggage labels and exact departure time from the ship. Unfortunately there was a problem with US customs so everything was held up by about an hour and a quarter. Once the go-ahead was given everything proceeded according to plan. The only problem was that for some unexplained reason (though we did ask) the Bistro did not open at 9:00 like it was meant to. That meant that there was nowhere to get a decent cup of coffee and a piece of cake whilst we were waiting. Maybe they were afraid of being swamped by passengers because everyone was in the Starlight Club waiting to disembark. As soon as disembarkation started the Bistro opened. Mrs nadge likes her coffee and croissant in the morning and we'd elected not to get room service in favour of the Bistro, so we were a tad disgruntled. Our flight out of Miami was only at 17:30 so we knew we had hours to kill beforehand. Taking Judith's advice we asked the concierge about transfers, who organised us on the Crystal transfer ($33 per person) which included transfer to the Hilton airport hotel for a light lunch, keeping all the luggage under lock and key whilst we waited and relaxed by the hotel pool, then transfer to the airport and escort during check-in. It was well worth it as we would have only had to wait out those hours at the airport with all our luggage.
Reasonable flight from Miami to Heathrow (about 8 hours) then another 5 hours to Tel Aviv. It was a bit foggy in London that morning so we were stuck on the plane for an extra hour and a half till we could take off. Arrived home safely about 36 hours after leaving the ship, and were met at the airport by four of our kids which was really nice.
Summary As many other people have said, the two main impressions that one takes away from the cruise is the quality of the service and the friendliness of both the passengers and the crew. The crew's friendliness is truly genuine and we appreciated it.
Highlights My Mum's birthday "the whole reason for the holiday" was really nice. We woke up early and gathered in her cabin for present giving. Her various grandchildren had also made her cards and presents, and there were balloons and decorations in the cabin courtesy of our stewardess. We gathered again for cocktails and more present giving before dinner, during which she was serenaded by all the personnel and we had a birthday cake of course. She was also serenaded by the Castaways at karaoke that evening. All in all a great day.
Mrs nadge looking beautiful all dressed up with plenty of places to go.
Mozart tea and the Amadeus hot chocolate. I was going for Patty's record (Paws10) as I managed three in 35 minutes. I started feeling a bit sick so I stopped after that! I'll have to pace myself better next time.
The service. Mum had a maintenance issue with the bath. It took 3 visits to sort it out. The next day she received a box of chocolates as an apology from Crystal because the service hadn't been up to scratch. She'd never even said a word to anyone about it. That's service.
One day I came in to lunch late just to pick up the others before trivia, as I'd been playing in the paddle tennis competition and I didn't feel like eating. The head waiter was genuinely disappointed that I wasn't staying to eat.
The best recommendation I can give is that I've been smiling as I've been writing this, remembering all the good times on board.
We had a fabulous cruise, our second on Crystal line. Crystal is quite simply a top notch line. We love good food and entertainment and wanted a larger stateroom than provided by many lines.
The Food The ingredients used for food on the Serenity are very high quality. Even the pasta was of high quality and very tasty. Beef is flown in from the U.S., and we enjoyed lobster several times during the cruise -- in the main dining room, at a buffet, and at the Silk Road speciality restaurant. Our headwaiter gave us opportunities to make special requests. Want crepe suzette? You have it. I heard that one couple ordered caviar from room service for breakfast every morning. Some of our friends ordered chocolate souffles for their last evening in the dining room.
Both Prego and Silk Road restaurants are lovely and provide a bit of variety on the cruise. The Silk Road was especially fine. Both restaurants are free but a $6 tip per person is suggested.
The Entertainment The entertainment is also top-notch. The musical production numbers are a visual and auditory delight. Highly skilled dancers and fine voicesare backed up by a live orchestra. I heard that each show costs $1 million to put into production, and each cruise has about five shows. For variety, a comedian, a dance team and a fantastic classical pianist also entertained. Music is available all over the ship in bars, at teatime, at cocktail parties, etc.
We had excellent and erudite lecturers onboard, and we took advantage of language, computer and piano classes. There is something to entertain every interest.
The Cabins The staterooms are large and lovely and have more than ample storage. We requested juices in our fridge in addition to the free soda and water. Bathrooms have two sinks in the granite vanity and a shower in the tub. Aveda soaps and lotions are provided.
It is hard to find fault with the Crystal experience. It is a happy ship with a crew that falls over itself to please each guest. It is organized, clean, and not crowded. One reviewer talked about noise in the dining room. We did not experience that, and we never had trouble hearing conversation there. We found our stateroom very quiet also.
It costs a bit more to sail with Crystal, but the experience is first-rate.